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Here is a print created in 1516 AD by the gothic master Albrecht Dürer.  It portrays the familiar theme of Prosperine (Persephone) abducted by Pluto (Hades) the god of the underworld—an event which underpins classical mythology about the changing of the seasons.  The print itself is about the capricious suddenness of change—a subject familiar to any inhabitant of late-medieval/early-modern Germany.

Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn (Albrect Dürer, 1516, etching from iron plate)

Dürer was probably the greatest and most prolific of the late gothic artists from Northern Europe.  Over the course of his life (1471 – 1528) he produced countless drawings, etchings, engravings, woodcuts, and paintings.  Although his paintings are phenomenal, Dürer’s greatest contribution to art may have been as a printmaker. Invented in the 1440’s, the printing press was still comparatively new technology during Dürer’s life. However, as is evident in this iron etching, Dürer had already pushed the limits of what printing could do.  He was Europe’s first great mass-artist.

In this scene, Pluto has cruelly grabbed the naked maiden goddess.  Her distress and misery outweigh her nudity and beauty.  Her face is distorted into a horrified mask. Each element of the print combines to create a powerful narrative about the ominous and unstable nature of existence. The floating/dissolving jagdschloss in the background hints at life’s instability. The sinister presence of Pluto dominates the composition.  Although his body is hidden by Proserpine, the predatory mass of arms, hair, legs, and scowl is all too present.

Even in a wholly fantastic scene such as this, the realistic details are overwhelming.  Pluto’s wild hair becomes a part of the bracken and gorse of the savage woods where the abduction is taking place.  The unicorn is neither a horse nor a goat (nor a gentle purveyor of rainbows) but a one-of-a-kind hellbeast which has just galloped up from the Stygian depths.

The only hopeful element of the composition is the sky–where a beautiful mass of clouds which are piled up like clots of cream or a fallen robe hints at a future less dark and violent.

During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras.  One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.

Statue of Pluto (Roman, ca. First Century, Marble)

The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:

Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld.  He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance.  The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak.  A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity.  Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)

Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans.  When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.

Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse.  The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy.  The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses.  The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead.  No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion.  The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.

Rape of Proserpine (Niccolò dell'Abbate, ca. 1571, oil on canvas)

Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath.  She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved.  The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.

Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities.  Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship.  There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”.  Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.

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